What Are You Willing to Die For?
(A Crisis in Faith Part 2)
As we know, this week is a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This morning my husband Ted and I went to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Scholarship Breakfast at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, in Cranston, RI. It is an annual event held every MLK Day, sponsored by the Minister’s Alliance. It is attended by political as well as religious leaders here in the state of Rhode Island, and is open to anyone who wishes to honor Dr. King and be part of the continuation of the work he began during the Civil Rights Movement. Every single speaker this morning, from Governor Gina Raimondo to Mayors Allan Fung of Cranston, Jorge Elorza of Providence, and James Diossa of Central Falls, from Senator Jack Reed to State Representative David Cicilline, from the Executive Director of the RI State Council of Churches, Rev. Dr. Don Anderson, to the President of the Minster’s Alliance, Rev. Dr. Sammy C. Vaughn to the Keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. James Evans, Jr., EVERYONE said that we cannot rest, that as we have seen in recent days in our nation, Dr. King’s dream is not yet a reality, that there is a lot more anti-racism work to be done. We all “amen-ed” our agreement.
The thing that struck me personally the most was when the Keynote speaker said that, “It does no good to throw up your hands in despair.” That was a zinger for me. Last week I wrote about the film Selma. This past weekend I preached four sermons on Dr Martin Luther King’s teaching and challenged people to work for justice. This weekend the youth group at our church got in the newspaper and on the news for their annual Homeless Awareness weekend, held from 12 noon on Saturday till 12 noon on Sunday, to raise awareness about homelessness as well as funds for the RI Family Shelter. This was our nineteenth year. Our youth director also took the youth to see the film Selma, and I did some education about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement beforehand, because I feel that young people do not realize the sacrifice of those who have gone before them. On the opposite page of Sunday’s Providence Journal, (Section A page 5) was a feature about a RI man named Clifford Montiero, who marched from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King. Montiero said the same thing, “Young people should see Selma because they don’t know they are walking on shoulders of people who preceded them.”
I was deeply saddened, and deeply outraged, to hear that many of our youth were acting disrespectfully during the film. To me that is sacrilegious. It shows immense disrespect to Dr. King and to all that he believed in, as well as to me, their pastor, our Vicar and youth director. I feel as though they spat in my father’s face. Believe me, I will give them a long, hard “talking to” when we meet for confirmation class this Wednesday night. But their cluelessness sickens me. I go off on rants in my head of conversations I want to have with them about their white privilege, about which they are probably also clueless, which means they have tuned out my sermons and teaching, especially in recent days. I feel the rage of Jesus when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. I am so sickened by their cluelessness, that yes, I sometimes feel myself sliding down that slippery slope of despair.
The keynote speaker quoted Edmund Burke,who said “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” My stepdaughter posted this quote from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail on Facebook:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Edmond Burke also said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” If history is in the hands of those members of my youth group, we are in trouble. I have a lot more educating to do.
Eight years ago my husband and I went to our national ELCA’s (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s) Mission Developer training in Chicago. One of the keynote speakers at that training session changed my husband’s life. He was an hispanic pastor who works in inner city ministry, and shared a story about a life-threatening experience he had while just doing his daily ministry. The message of his story was “What are you willing to die for?” This question has haunted my husband for the past eight years. It continues to shape the way he looks at so many things.
In the film Selma, there was a scene which took place after the march from Selma to Montgomery, when everyone was relieved, and in a subdued way celebrating this victory. Two white clergy persons were talking together about the experience, and why they had come all the way to Alabama to participate in this march. Just then they were attacked by white racists and brutally beaten. As they beat one of them,a 38 year old Unitarian Minister from Boston named James Reeb, the attacker said, “You want to know what it feels like to be a (racial slur)? THIS is what it feels like,” and he beat him to death.
Later, when my husband and I were discussing the film I said that in an ironic way, he did get his wish, and knew with his dying breath what it felt like to be black. My husband said, “It all comes down to that question I always ask myself, “What are you willing to die for?”
Many feel that Dr. King knew he would be killed for the work that he did. In his last speech, delivered at the Mason Temple, Memphis, Tennessee, after saying how much work still needs to be done for equality, Dr. King concluded his speech:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
I ask you, “What are YOU willing to die for?”
Linda R. Forsberg, Copyright January 19, 2015